Drone startup Identified Technologies mirrors marriage of steel and silicon as Pittsburgh rises
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Identified Technologies CEO Dick Zhang has built one of the fastest-growing companies in Pittsburgh using local man power, exemplifying the city's rise as a tech hub (courtesy)

Identified Technologies is working to perfect the software element of a complex and competitive industrial drone market

While drones seem to be a dime a dozen these days and becoming more a nuisance than a toy for some, their presence in the construction industry is getting ubiquitous. Every city seems to have at least one company promising the world and there is a rush to get at least one of these companies into venture capital portfolios. With four investors and $3.5 million in hand, Pittsburgh’s Identified Technologies is one of the companies in the race.

Founded in 2013, Identified Technologies pitches itself as an “eeDaas” (end-to-end Drone as a Service) company that manages and even automates surveying for construction sites.

“It means we offer a fully managed commercial drone solution. We do everything but push the start button on the drone,” Identified Founder and CEO Dick Zhang explains to Geektime. “Our integrated software and services includes everything from FAA compliance and flight planning, to data capture and advanced analytics.”

But how many drones do they need in order to conduct these surveys? Not many at all.

“You can map an area and get survey-grade data with one drone. In fact, a company can map a 100-acre job site in minutes, and get all the data back the following day. With traditional methods gathering and processing this data could take a 2-person team a month.”

Having seen plenty of drone manufacturers, it’s hard for even the most avid technology news reader to know just how many companies are floating (or hovering) what Identified Technologies is making money on. Zhang tells Geektime that it’s not so much about the chassis at this point as it is the dashboard.

Not just droning on

Zhang founded Identified Technologies while a student at Philly’s University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in mechanical engineering. While there he spent time with the GRASP Laboratory — General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception — where he focused on small UAVs. Zhang brought the startup to Pittsburgh when he entered the AlphaLab Gear hardware accelerator, a franchise of Innovation Works (IW). He was able to leverage $3 million in investments from Birchmere Ventures, Startbot, and Xalisco Ventures in addition to IW before cherry-picking students from local universities.

They provide 3D volumetrics and orthomosaics (a form of photo-stitching better suited for 3D surfaces), forecasting of how blueprinted plans would look once constructed, even forecasts of cost or projects. Their change detection tool (CDT) and excavation progress tracking also adds more precise metrics to progress monitoring. But their most important service? Surveying 100 acres in just 10 minutes.

They face a long list of startup competitors who at this point have collected tens of millions of dollars in funding from the biggest players in technology, but Identified sees what it’s doing as the next logical step for drones.

“The drone industry is leaning away from hardware, towards data processing and analytics. The oversupply of drone manufacturers has made the basic hardware a commodity. At this point, the challenge is not in finding a drone that can capture images, but everything afterward.”

Again, the market is ballooning. The company points to traditional surveying methods and their purveyors as their main rivals, but there are plenty of startups entering the a drones-for-construction market expected to value at $20.5 billion by 2025 with over 6 million drones in operation (others estimate the professional drone industry will see $4.1 billion in revenue in another three years). Well-funded rivals include DroneDeploy with $31 million raised (SF), Airware at $109.55 million (SF), Skycatch at $41.75 million (SF), PrecisionHawk at $30 million (Raleigh, NC), and Paris’s Parrot at $35.21 million.

The only way forward, according to Zhang, is to out-algorithm, out-process and out-connect his opponents.

“These pictures are turned into a variety of data and analytics products that provide real business value. Most drone companies cannot offer useful project management insights. In the future, the data that drones collect will be combined with smart sensors on vehicles, and equipment for even deeper insights.”

“This trend will only increase as companies strive to continually increase their efficiency by tracking, automating and optimizing every single thing happening on their job sites. The increases in safety, accuracy, and productivity are unprecedented, and we’re excited to be a part of it.”

Speed is the name of the game in drone surveying. Traditional surveys sometimes return results only after ground has been broken or new work has altered the construction area. With a quick turnaround, results can be factored into the entire blueprint.

“On a fast moving job site, by the time you get the data back, the site’s changed and the data’s no longer accurate. Our clients value interim monitoring throughout the project. That way the company can continuously track progress and make adjustments to optimize in near real-time.”

Pittsburgh rising

Despite Uber’s follies in the press of late, it has brought new attention to Pittsburgh and its formidable resources, especially the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon. Bryan Salesky’s formerly stealth startup Argo.ai grabbed a $1 billion investment from Ford earlier this month for self-driving car systems and formally opened its office over the weekend.

“When de-industrialization hit cities across the United States and the steel industry went into decline, Pittsburgh had to go in search of a new identity,” Salesky wrote in a blog post. “Fortunately, the seeds of innovation from early philanthropic efforts meant it didn’t have to go far.

With so many people coming to the city to take jobs with tech’s biggest companies and a number of out-of-towners deciding to make a go of it in the city after graduating, Identified Technologies has gained an advantage in recruiting that aforementioned top talent, often leaping from some of those big names to the drone startup. Pittsburgh has a net gain of 2,165 people from the Philadelphia area between 2010 and 2014 as well as over 1,300 from New York City over the same period of time.

“Innovation and manufacturing is nothing new to Pittsburgh,” Zhang reiterates to Geektime, hearkening back to when Pittsburgh produced a fifth of the country’s steel during World War II (hence, Pittsburgh Steelers). “Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have a rich history attracting and training top talent, but many graduates historically moved away after school.”

“Recent outposts for Uber, Google, Facebook, DuoLingo, and Amazon all helped shine a spotlight on Pittsburgh for the whole world to see. This recognition has created a virtuous cycle, allowing Pittsburgh to retain and attract even more talent.”

Identified proves that with staff like former human-machine interface expert Hillary Mellin, Masters in robotic science Kalyani Nirmal and Bhala Moorthy, and former Uber engineer Ethan Minogue (all being Carnegie graduates). Now it’s a matter of becoming one of the more talked about companies by building out its technology. If their ambitions are unstated, their resources are not.

“Pittsburgh is well on it’s way to being a world class startup ecosystem,” citing its universities, low cost of housing, huge food scene and an extremely supportive city government. “The only thing lacking is a locally built, blockbuster IPO, but give us a little more time and we’ll get there.”

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